NEW YORK — New York City is crisscrossed with underground natural gas pipelines, many decades old, supplying cooking and heating gas to homes and businesses. But safety and environmental concerns about a new gas pipeline being built into Manhattan’s west side have given rise to protest, and calls for New York to move more quickly to sustainable forms of energy.
The high-pressure Spectra Energy pipeline, set to begin operating in late fall, travels under parts of New Jersey, Staten Island, and the Hudson River, and enters Manhattan next to a playground and park. "This is an incredibly high-population area and it’s insane what they’re doing," said Kathleen Thomas, one of several hundred protesters who rallied in Manhattan recently to call on President Barack Obama to withhold support for all new fossil-fuel pipelines.
Thomas noted that the Spectra pipeline is similar in design and pressure to one that exploded in 2010, destroying a neighborhood in San Bruno, California. Eight people were killed and more than sixty injured in the disaster, which left a crater several stories deep and 122 meters wide. Thomas’s group, United for Action, and other opponents fear that a similar accident, or terrorist attack, could kill hundreds. Among the entities that have filed suit to stop the pipeline is Jersey City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River, where the pipeline travels under schools, hospitals and chemical plants.
Advocates and detractors
New York State and city officials, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say the pipeline poses no threat. "I’m not an expert on this pipeline or pipeline technology, but we have pipelines running under half of America. If they were that dangerous, we’d have a lot of fires," he said.
Deputy Mayor for Operations Caswell Holloway, a former commissioner of environmental protection, seconded Bloomberg. "We reviewed it for safety. We reviewed it for environmental impacts. It is being built to exceed the highest-rated standards," he said, adding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has ultimate authority, also approved the project.
But opponents say pipeline accidents happen almost weekly in the U.S., although mostly in unpopulated areas. Claire Donahue, who founded a group called the Sane Energy Project to oppose the Spectra pipeline, said that energy companies themselves pay for environmental impact studies, and that regulations are so lax as to be meaningless. The requirement for this pipeline is that it be inspected only once every seven years, she said.
"There are 88 inspectors for 2.5 million miles of pipelines. The primary way that pipelines are inspected is to walk over the route looking for dead grass. I’m not making that up. We’re in a place, a cement area, the pipe is under a river, it is under a highway, it is under sidewalks. You tell me how they are going to know that it is leaking," said Donahue.
Health, environmental concerns
Pipeline opponents also are concerned about radon, a radioactive gas that is more concentrated in natural gas extracted from shale formations deep underground. Radon decays in about two weeks’ time, but opponents say it will not have more than a few days to diminish before reaching New York. Spectra Energy maps show the new pipeline carrying gas mainly extracted from the nearby Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and New York.
Al Appleton, a former New York City commissioner of environmental protection, charged in a recent forum that city and state officials have been negligent in not investigating the issue. "The radon level in that natural gas could be as much as 20 to 60 times higher than the levels to which we’re currently exposed, which means a huge spike in your risk for things like lung cancer," he said. He noted that most New Yorkers live in apartment buildings constructed for gas-stove cooking only.
An analysis commissioned by Spectra Energy, however, found that the pipeline's gas will not bring dangerous levels of radon into New Yorkers’ homes or businesses. The study, by biophysicist Lynn R. Anspaugh, said that a study cited by opponents overestimated the amount of radon at both wellheads and after transmission. It also noted that the lead federal regulatory agencies involved, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy, both concluded there will be no health hazard to users of the natural gas brought by the pipeline. Spectra Energy statements also have said that the pipeline will be operated with multiple safeguards, including robotic checks of the pipeline, and that it poses no danger either of explosion or radon.
The lawsuits brought by opponents will be heard in federal court in the fall, right before the pipeline is set to begin operating. Meanwhile, opposition is building to other new natural gas infrastructure proposed for the New York area, including another high-pressure pipeline into the seaside Rockaway neighborhood, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Opponents say that global warming is responsible for storms like Sandy, and that remaining deposits of gas and oil must be left in the ground, in order to stave off even greater climate disasters.